Three days after Max Player finished third to Tiz the Law in his second consecutive Grade 1 effort, owners for the horse switched trainers, moving him from Linda Rice to Steve Asmussen.
The move came after Max Player finished third – 7 ½ lengths behind Tiz the Law at Saturday’s Travers Stakes. That came with a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure and followed a third in June at the Belmont Stakes – again to Tiz the Law.
Max Player will be driven Wednesday from Rice’s New York base to Asmussen’s barn at Churchill Downs. His focus becomes the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby – an underlying reason for the change, according to George Hall, who owns Max Player as part of the SportBLX Thoroughbreds syndicate. Hall told DRF.com he wants a Kentucky-based trainer to ready Max Player for the Derby.
“I think she did a good job getting the horse this far and I think it was time for a change,” Hall told DRF.com. “I definitely wanted someone with experience and infrastructure at Churchill. I wanted someone who could take the horse to Churchill right away and to spend some time with the horse prior to the race.”
Asmussen Built a Hall of Fame Career at Churchill Downs
When it comes to Churchill Downs, Asmussen yields to nobody. He is the all-time winningest trainer at Churchill Downs and a two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer with nearly 9,000 career victories. Nine times this century, Asmussen led North American trainers in yearly victories.
Max Player joins a barn headlined by Midnight Bisou, one of the top horses of either sex in the world. Two of Asmussen’s charges, Gun Runner and Curlin, earned more than $10 million in their careers. He also trained star sprinter Mitole, 2016 Belmont Stakes winner Creator, and two of this century’s top mares, Rachel Alexandra and Untapable.
When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, however, Asmussen yields to everybody. He is 0-for-20 in the Derby, covering 13 races. Despite seconds with Lookin At Lee (2017) and Nehro (2011), it remains the only Triple Crown race outside his reach. He won the 2007 and 2009 Preakness Stakes.
Max Player Epitomizes the Phrase ‘Steady Closer’
In Max Player, Asmussen gets a horse who hasn’t missed the board in five starts: 2-1-2. A closer, Max Player won the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct earlier this year, before the show finishes at the Belmont and Travers. He earned $373,500 in those five starts.
Hall said he would like to keep rider Joel Rosario aboard for the Derby. Of course, due to COVID-19, Rosario would have to leave Saratoga and arrive in Kentucky by Aug. 24 to ride in the Derby. If Rosario opts to stay in New York for business reasons, Hall and Co. will need to find a local option.
As for the New York-based Rice, she didn’t comment on the move, other than tweeting her disappointment at losing Max Player. It’s believed she didn’t want Max Player to run the Derby, despite his 60 Derby qualifying points, placing him ninth on the ladder.
Max Player has been moved to the Asmussen barn in order to prepare for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. We are disappointed to see him go, but we wish George Hall and SportBLX the best of luck! pic.twitter.com/hhTvvLVLXl
— Linda Rice (@LindaRiceRacing) August 11, 2020
Rice may not have Asmussen’s accolades, but she’s no slouch. In 2009, she became the first woman in the modern era to win a trainer’s title at a major US track when she captured the Saratoga training title. Rice won back-to-back titles at Aqueduct and tied Todd Pletcher at the 2011 Spring/Summer meet at Belmont Park.
In 2017, she tied Keiron Magee for the training title at Laurel Park, despite starting 51 horses to Magee’s 128. Rice won a staggering 53% of her races that meet.